Afghan Women's Orchestra
The Afghan Women's Orchestra will be in residence in Oxford for a week in March 2019.

Afghan Women’s Orchestra in Oxford: fostering cultural leaders through music

By Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, junior research fellow at Somerville College; college lecturer in music at St Catherine’s College; postdoctoral researcher on the Transforming 19th-Century Historically Informed Practice project; associate conductor, Orchestra of St John’s.

In Afghanistan, young women making music in public is a bold political act. To been seen, to be heard — particularly through musical expression — is radical for women living in Afghanistan today. Yet there is a group of young women defying all the odds to assert their right to make music — they form Ensemble Zohra, the first all-female orchestra in Afghanistan. Through their courage they are pushing back 40 years of repression and inspiring a whole new generation of young men and women. In March, these young women will be in residence in Oxford for a week in a historic visit which promises to be the beginning of an exciting and enduring relationship between the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the city of Oxford.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the rise of the Taliban, a rich musical culture was silenced for decades with women’s access to musical participation completely forbidden. Despite the political and security changes after 2001, there are still large portions of the Afghan population that do not approve of music-making, especially for women and even more particularly in mixed groups of men and women. Pushing these social boundaries, Dr Ahmad Sarmast founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in 2010. ANIM is co-educational and teaches the national curriculum alongside a full music programme including history, theory and practical performance on both traditional Afghan and Western classical instruments.

Based in Kabul, ANIM is dedicated to providing access to music education across all sectors of Afghan society, ensuring that street children and orphans have as much access as more middle-class families. Students from the outlying provinces often move to Kabul to live in orphanages as much to be in proximity as to be safe from family members who disapprove of their musical activities.

The school is a ‘safe space’ for the girls (from age a very young age through to their early 20s) where they are equal to their male peers in all ways. While girls participate in all aspects of musical performance alongside the boys, in 2015, Meena, a young trumpet player approached Dr Sarmast because she wanted the girls to have their own group, to take ownership of their performance and repertoire and form an all-female orchestra—Ensemble Zohra. 

I first became aware of Ensemble Zohra through an online news article about Negin Khpalwak, the first Afghan female orchestra conductor, with whom I felt immediate sympathies as my own youth was spent trying to become an orchestra conductor in the middle of Alaska. Negin had to move from her traditional Pashtun community in rural Afghanistan to Kabul when her uncle threatened to kill her if she pursued her musical ambitions. Let’s not pretend for an instant that growing up in Alaska and living in an orphanage in Kabul are the same things, but what they do have in common is a remoteness from the rich orchestral landscape that is taken for granted in the UK and throughout much of Europe. Throughout the rocky and unpredictable journey that is any conducting career, there is no replacement for the multitude of experiences and knowledge gained by having access to such a wide range of orchestral practices and musicians. I was instantly inspired by her story and began to lobby my orchestra to bring her to the UK for a two-week professional development programme. Very quickly the conversation turned towards bringing the entire group here and thus began a life-changing journey…

It didn’t feel right to invite the young women here without going to meet them first, so within a few months I had booked a flight to Kabul and spent a week visiting the music school. I was fortunate to have local hosts who helped me navigate the city safely, but even in Kabul which is under the control of the Afghan Government, I only entered buildings with armed guards and frequently underwent pat-downs and bag searches, even to enter malls or restaurants. Students are not able to take instruments home with them to practice as the risk of violence and theft is too high. In 2014 a public performance was attacked by a suicide bomber where one audience member died and the school’s director nearly lost his life. Fortunately, no students were killed in the blast. A week after I left, a school in another district of Kabul was attacked killing 48 pupils and teachers. But that is the reality for those pushing forward on the ground in Afghanistan.

As an orchestra conductor and academic with a specialism in the social psychology of orchestral music-making, I found the situation at the school fascinating. Unlike El Sistema’s project of cultivating primarily Western orchestral practices, all of the orchestras at the school combine traditional Afghan and Western classical instruments, performing arrangements of traditional and popular Afghan and Western classical music. In doing so the practice re-signifies orchestral music-making, creating a uniquely Afghan sound and musical culture. Naturally, it is not as simple as that, and coming in from the outside I immediately saw tensions between a variety of potential objectives. One such tension lies in how one balances the development of individual musicians, such as those with orchestral aspirations and potential on an international stage, with the desire to promote an authentically Afghan musical practice when there is yet to be a professional (or even amateur, for that matter) orchestral music scene in Afghanistan.

Becoming a musician in Afghanistan is not straightforward — especially if you are female. There are no orchestras to audition for or regular chamber music series in concert halls, nor are there acres of budding pianists whose parents will bring them to your studio for weekly lessons. Public performances are risky. A life in music for these young people will require an incredible amount of innovation, creativity, risk-taking and perseverance. They will become cultural leaders in the process.

Inviting them to Oxford for a week-long residency is one way that we can support this journey, and in exchange we will be opened to a whole new way to be an orchestra, new musical landscapes and new friendships. In residence at Somerville College, the young women will be embedded in an environment that has spearheaded the education and empowerment of women for over a hundred years. Ensemble Zohra will rehearse and perform with Oxford University students, young musicians from the Oxfordshire County Music Service, and the professional musicians of the Orchestra of St John’s.

Ensemble Zohra will be giving public performances at the British Museum on 15 March; Harrow Arts Centre on 16 March; and Sheldonian Theatre on 17 March. The traditional section of the orchestra will also be performing on a special programme led by musicologists Professor John Bailey (Goldsmiths) and Veronica Doubleday at the Holywell Music Room on 13 March. A panel discussion on women’s education in Afghanistan will take place at Somerville College on 14 March. More information about these events and information on how to buy tickets can be found at